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MICA alum, West Baltimore community team up on striking 'Wisdom Wall' murals

Makayla Rebecca Hughes and her older brother, Ty’Jhawn Dorsey, were walking home from school in West Baltimore when they saw a man painting the wall on Warwick and West North avenues, near Coppin State University and Frederick Douglass High School.

Their curiosity got the best of them.

“We started asking him about the drawing,” said Makayla, 11, and after learning about his project — a series of six murals of historical change-makers with Maryland ties — they asked whether they could volunteer and paint with him.

To their relief, Iandry Randriamandroso said, “‘Everyone is welcome,’” so long as they got permission from their mother to participate. It turned out — it was all a part of the community artist and Maryland Institute College of Art alumnus’ philosophy when it comes to his art: It should involve the community and be accessible to everyone.

“Part of my work is ‘How can I make the work as local as possible?’ ” said Randriamandroso, who often chooses social subjects of the environment in his art work.

“If you pass by me ... and you were curious and interested, I will give you a brush to work with me. The reason why that’s possible also is I make my work really simple, so people can just be apart of it. It’s almost like doing a coloring book,” he said. “I‘m also there to make sure the work is done professionally.”

The 40-year-old Las Vegas-based artist, who graduated from MICA in 2009 with a master’s degree in community arts, has been creating art since around the age of 14 in his birthplace in Manakara, Madagascar, where he painted his first mural at school. Though art in Madagascar wasn’t readily embraced as a steady career at the time, Randriamandroso said his parents allowed him to continue drawing and painting. He later attended college in New York to pursue his passion, and in 2008 he pursued his master’s degree in Baltimore, a city that became his canvas and a place where he’d invite local residents, students and artists to research, create and present murals and other public art to the community. Even since relocating to places like Texas, New York and now Nevada, the artistic collaborator and educator said the city keeps him coming back to create.

“Baltimore is my second home,” he gushed. “There’s so much love.”

Randriamandroso has worked with students of YouthWorks, a summer jobs program, to craft a mural of hands forming letters in sign language at The Book Thing (the letters spell out “Book Thing”). He and artist assistant Kenneth C. Clemons also crafted B’more Birds, which began as a collaborative project between the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts in 2014. The project features 12 murals of local birds, including a Baltimore Oriole, a blue jay, and a red-bellied woodpecker, on the York Road corridor, which Randriamandroso did to raise awareness about beautiful, local birds that are essential to the ecosystem, but also threatened by its changes, some of which are happening on York Road.

“Change is a good thing, but sometimes it has some problems, also. The bird is showing how ... if there are changes in neighborhoods, if you change the ecosystem, the bird can change,” leave or stay the same, he said. It works similarly with people, he said.

Like other projects, B’More Birds required Randriamandroso to research his mural subject and present his ideas to the community. Once approved by community members and funders, he worked with a local researcher to learn the importance of each bird and to craft descriptions for the public. He then worked with volunteers, local artist and community members to create the murals.

“It’s a big project, but it makes the project more integrated, and with that connection, everyone will have an investment in the project,” he said, adding that when his work is benefiting a specific community, he goes out of his way.

The second part of the B’more Birds project concluded last summer amid his work on his most recent collaborative project in West Baltimore — the “Wisdom Wall.”

On the corner of Warwick Avenue and West North Avenue, the series of murals honors six historical change-makers:

• African-American orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

• Matthew Henson, the first African-American arctic explorer.

• African-American educator and lifelong female higher education advocate Fanny Jackson Coppin.

• Robert W. Coleman, an African-American veteran and social activist for the handicapped who is credited with the inception of “sight-saving” classes in schools

• William S. Baer, a Johns Hopkins University alumnus and innovator in spine and hip surgery; founding chairman of orthopedics at Hopkins.

• St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Each has at least one educational institution named after them within the state; however, the murals depict a more creative tribute, transforming a nondescript wall into a work of art.

Behind each black-and-white portrait are abstract backgrounds with bold lines and shapes in bright oranges, yellows, reds and greens that were sketched by local high school students — a stark contrast from the previous empty gray space, Randriamandroso said.

“When I looked at the wall, it’s a long, long wall …. It’s kind of almost like an accordion book, so when I designed it, if you look at the mural, you can fold it like an accordion,” said Randriamandroso, adding that the project was a collaboration in many ways.

Adeline Hutchinson, 71, president of the Robert W. Coleman Community Organization, said she began mapping out plans for the wall early last year with Dan McCarthy, executive director of the Episcopal Housing Corp., which has overseen renovations of St. Stephen’s Court Apartments in the area. Together, they applied for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts’ 2017 Transformative Art Prize and were awarded a $20,000 grant for the project, according to BOPA, which also connected them with several artists. Hutchinson said they settled on Randriamandroso for his talented mural work.

Randriamandroso helped them brainstorm about what the blank space could harbor, and Hutchinson said they began to think about the nearby schools. Frederick Douglass High School, Matthew Henson Elementary School, William S. Baer School and Coppin State University were all named after accomplished individuals with Maryland ties and are located not far from the wall. “Well, why not use those people on the wall?” Hutchinson said they thought.

Receiving community input and approval, Randriamandroso went on to do research about the different figures and sought out the help of local students and residents to help create the murals, including students from ConneXions School for the Arts, to whom he gave stipends for their work. The wall was completed in the cold of November, with volunteers still braving the brisk weather to complete the murals, Randriamandroso said.

Makayla, 11, and Ty’Jhawn, 12, who live in the St. Stephen’s Court Apartments, helped Randriamandroso paint the murals on Saturdays for several weeks, starting with Coleman’s mural.

“We were painting the face, and it was kind of hard. We had to do an outline. We made a mistake,” said Makayla, but Randriamandroso guided them and helped them fix it. It was a fun learning experience, one they are reminded of every time they pass the murals, said Tyjhawn.

“We tell everybody we helped,” he said.

The children’s mother, Katrice Dorsey, 35, said it gives her children something to look back on when they’re older, while offering some historical insight to the neighborhood.

“People should know who Henson is and who Frederick Douglass is,” she said.

Hutchinson, who reached out to residents and community members for approval of the mural design, said the Wisdom Wall has been “overwhelmingly received” and held a dedication in December for the event, in which residents and relatives of Coleman viewed the mural and discussed its significance.

Coppin State alumnus and longtime West Baltimore civil rights leader Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham, 67, said seeing the murals when he drives by the neighborhood — a community which has often been neglected — is uplifting.

“It’s something that is much needed in this community — for people to appreciate the community,” he said, especially for those who have lived through pivotal periods in Baltimore, like the 1968 riots or the uprisings the followed the death of Freddie Gray. It’s a reminder of Maryland’s greatness.

“These are the folks that impacted our history,” Cheatham said. The educational aspect — putting faces to the names that have been given to area schools — is important, he said. “Many people may not know that ‘Coppin’ is the name of a woman educator.”

But even more, Cheatham said the works are realistic.

“Many times you see artwork ... and you kind of have to stretch a little, like, ‘Yeah, I guess it looks like them.’ These six portraits, it looks like them,” said Cheatham, complimenting Randriamandroso’s work.

Dorsey also praised it.

“I love it. I’m hoping they finish the other side” of the wall, she said. Hutchinson said that there are plans to expand the artworks and that they are working on solidifying funds for an informative plaque to be placed on the Wisdom Wall to provide more information about the featured figures.

“We haven’t decided just what it would be,” she said, but Randriamandroso remains confident that the Wisdom Wall will remain an important source of knowledge and pride for West Baltimore.

“It’s a book that will open forever as long as the mural will be there,” he said.


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